How a young Sligoman came to play an unlikely role in the War of Independence
The only fatality in an ambush on the lord lieutenant in 1919 was Martin Savage
Martin Savage, who was raised on a small farm at Streamstown, Ballisodare, Co Sligo, was to play an unlikely role in the War of Independence.
Martin Savage, my grand-uncle, was raised on a small farm at Streamstown, Ballisodare, Co Sligo. The youngest son of 13 children, he was born on October 12th, 1897 and after national school worked as a grocer’s apprentice in Sligo town. In 1915 he moved to Dublin and, coming from a nationalist background, soon became a member of the Volunteers and was to play an unlikely role in the War of Independence.
By 1916 he was working as a barman at Keogh’s licensed premises on Bachelor’s Walk, so hadn’t far to walk to the GPO where he fought during the early part of Easter Week, transferring later in the week to join the Four Courts garrison.
After the surrender, he was part of the first group of 200 deported to Knutsford detention barracks in Cheshire and was later moved to Frongoch internment camp. He was released on December 22nd, 1916, and arrived home to Streamstown in time for Christmas with his family. On returning to Dublin, he worked as sub-manager at the newly opened spirit, grocery and provisions store of William Kirk, a Presbyterian, at North Strand Road, where he lived over the premises.
In 1919, following the arrest of Volunteers Brigadier Dick McGee, Michael Lynch was appointed acting o/c of the Dublin brigade and soon realised the amount of sensitive information he had to hand. He sent for Martin Savage and handed him all the papers belonging to the recent Dublin brigade convention and, in addition, Brigadier McGee’s private papers, which were most important, containing among other matters, the names of all the squad – Michael Collins’s assassination unit. Martin was warned not to appear at any parades, drills or functions while he had those papers in his possession. Although he wasn’t happy to be shut off from his friends in D company, the importance of the papers was impressed upon him and he agreed.
Late on the evening of December 18th, Michael Collins received intelligence that Lord French, the lord lieutenant, was to return by train from his country residence the following morning, and would alight at Ashtown railway station, about two miles from the Viceregal Lodge (now Áras an Uachtaráin) in the Phoenix Park. On the fateful day, Martin left his place of work to bank money for his employer and then, following a chance encounter with Dan Breen and others, and despite efforts to dissuade him, he joined the group to cycle to Ashtown to set up an ambush.
Thirteen volunteers met at Kelly’s public house (now the Halfway House), about 500 yards from the railway station. When Lord French’s convoy appeared more quickly than anticipated, and with the road not blocked, the grenade-throwers concentrated their attack on the second car on the basis of incorrect intelligence.
This car was bombed to a halt but French was actually in the first car and so escaped. The only fatality was Martin Savage. A bullet struck him in the right cheek and passed out through the back of his head. His last words to Dan Breen, who was shot in the leg, were, “I’m done, Dan! Carry on!” The entire ambush of December 19th, 1919 was over inside a minute.
When Michael Lynch heard news of Martin’s death, he immediately realised the implications for the Dublin brigade and sent Tom Ennis to Martin’s room to clear it of all papers. He did so in the nick of time and so the Dublin brigade was saved from extinction.
The identity of Martin Savage was in doubt for a considerable time, but eventually it was traced via a deposit receipt for a sum of £70, lodged in the name of Kirk in a Dublin bank which was found in his possession and led to his employer, who when interviewed stated that “Mr. Martin Savage entered his employment two years ago, and a more industrious and gentlemanly young man it would be impossible to meet, while he was most attentive to his religious duties.”
The inquest was attended by two of Martin’s brothers who accompanied the remains to Collooney railway station, where they were met by a large number of relatives and friends. The coffin, covered with the Republican colours, was carried to the graveyard in Ballisodare, a distance of two miles, on the shoulders of mourners. The attempt on the life of Lord French ensured that Martin Savage’s death received extensive media coverage, both in Ireland and internationally.
He has been commemorated on many occasions since his death 100 years ago, most notably, with a bridge in Ballisodare named the Martin Savage Bridge by President Michael D Higgins in April of last year. Angela Savage is Professor Emerita, School of Chemistry, NUI Galway